Condit Dam on the White River

Recently, in the US, hundreds of dams have been abandoned as no longer serving the purpose for which they are designed. On the surface the remaining lakes, now sitting undisturbed, seem like a boon to the local wildlife and to returning land to wilderness. The problem beneath the surface is that the dams that create the lake in the first place don’t allow free migration of the fish, organic matter and silt that are the bedrock of the rivers’ ecosystems. The basic solution is drastic and quick (and probably a huge amount of fun). Eight hundred pounds of TNT seemed to do the job in this case . Things are changing though, and a new culture of dam removal is picking up momentum on a local, grassroots level. Dams are slowly beginning to come down, breathing new life into the rivers. The most interesting thing I found in the video above is how small the river looked once it got back to its normal size, and just how much mud had built up instead of gradually washing downstream. The dam just seemed a little greedy.

What prompted me to write this wasn’t just an eco-friendly attitude but a really alarming map that showed the inaccessibility of a whole river system because of 21 dams on the main branch and some tributaries. Hundreds of streams and smaller rivers cut off from the sea with generations of salmon unable to reach traditional spawning points, removing them from the food chain. It doesn’t take long to turn a river into a desert or an overgrown and strangled mud flat. Silt needs to flow downstream, feeding the life of the river but keeping it clear too.

And it’s not just giant hydro-electric dams or massive irrigation schemes that are the problem. There are about 74,000 dams in the US and tens of thousands of them are abandoned, no longer fit for purpose but still blocking the rivers. Small, old mining dams or local irrigation dams that look benign enough but add another obstacle for the free movement of all kinds of species and nutrients and nearly 2000 of them are unsafe and will kill a lot of people if they burst. There are dozens of them on every river system in the States. There is a new culture growing in relation to dams there and it will be worth watching given that many countries are developing the same addiction to dams as a panacea to the challenges of modernisation. More people see the value in a healthy eco-system and that it goes beyond nice views for tourists and more wild animals. Ecology is fundamental to farming and controlling climate change.

As dams come down, as the US reorganises its water use habits and looks to local solutions, often supported by tribal community leaders and elders, the Western world can learn a lot. How are they getting their water to homes, farms and business? Will local government help to push grey-water recycling and rainwater collection? It can’t happen overnight for the simple reason that millions would be without water but it can happen quickly they look to local solutions that use less resources. It was the idea of huge, one-shot, prestige projects that led to rivers been stoppered up in the first place.

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